Hurricane Blows Networks' Convention Coverage Off Course

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008

ST. PAUL, Aug. 31 -- On the eve of what was supposed to be the Republicans' week in the media spotlight, every network is suddenly turning into the Weather Channel.

Hurricane Gustav, sweeping its way toward the Gulf region, blew away most of the political coverage here Sunday as many of the assembled journalists turned their attention away from the Republican National Convention. And with the star anchors -- NBC's Brian Williams, ABC's Charlie Gibson, CBS's Katie Couric, CNN's Anderson Cooper, Fox's Shepard Smith-- being dispatched to the Gulf, it is already clear that Sen. John McCain's convention will receive considerably less television exposure than the Democrats did when they nominated Sen. Barack Obama in Denver last week.

"It's kind of a no-brainer," Kate O'Brian, ABC's senior vice president, said of the decision to send Gibson to New Orleans. "Charlie goes where the big news is. . . . I don't think it's going to be looked at as a fairness issue when the Republicans are making the same decisions we are."

By suspending all but minor business functions for Monday's session, McCain's team essentially ratified the media's decision that the mass evacuation ordered in advance of a life-threatening hurricane is, for the moment, a more compelling story.

"Is life fair?" asked Paul Friedman, CBS's senior vice president. "The Republicans clearly are going to be losing the opportunity for at least one hour of prime-time coverage. We delayed the decision until we did enough reporting in both places to know that the Republicans are dialing back and it became apparent that this thing was really going to hit" the Gulf Coast.

NBC News President Steve Capus said that "striking a balance" was on his mind when he encouraged Williams to fly from Minneapolis to St. Louis, where he interviewed McCain for Sunday's "NBC Nightly News," before his charter continued on to Baton Rouge.

"There's a tremendous amount of interest in the Republican convention," Capus said. "The selection of Governor Palin has captured the nation's attention and imagination, and they're desperate for more information about her. There's no way we're going to abandon the Republican convention."

Some GOP officials are privately telling network executives that the bulk of the four-day extravaganza could be compressed into a single night on Thursday, when McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, would make their acceptance speeches. If that happens, and Gustav does not reach the destructive fury of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the networks could recoup millions of dollars in advertising revenue by airing their usual entertainment fare instead of hourlong prime-time specials on the convention or the storm.

For the 24-hour cable networks, which thrive on what is dubbed "extreme weather," covering a hurricane could produce a bigger audience than a series of speeches at the Xcel Energy Center.

"Look, there are lives at stake," said David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief. "There is interest when tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people are being evacuated and there's a very large storm headed yet again into New Orleans. People who love politics understand what is happening. You can't be seen having a party while fellow Americans are fighting for their lives down in the Gulf."

Still, said Marty Ryan, Fox News's executive producer, the fairness question "is a real issue. Everyone covered the Democratic convention full tilt last week. The Republicans made it easier for everyone by canceling things for the next 24 hours." At the moment, he added, "they're certainly on the short end of it."

Even if there had been no hurricane, McCain was unlikely to match the 38 million people who watched Obama last week, the highest Nielsen ratings since convention audiences began to be measured in 1960. But even an audience half that size offers McCain the best opportunity of the campaign to deliver an unfiltered message. When party infighting delayed George McGovern's acceptance speech until 3 a.m. at the 1972 Democratic convention, it was seen as a major blow to his candidacy.

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